From: Monty Solomon [mailto:[log in to unmask]]

May 18, 2003

The State of American Singing as Heard on 'I-I-I-I-I-I-Idol'

THE cover of the new CD "American Idol Season 2: All-Time Classic
American Love Songs" features grinning head shots of 11 of the
television talent show's 12 finalists - an attractive,
amiable-looking group that could be a high school glee club. Don't be
fooled. Competitive karaoke is not for the fainthearted; "American
Idol" contestants do not sing songs so much as attack them. In nearly
every verse of every number on "All-Time Classic American Love
Songs," the young singers pursue a strategy of violent Mariah Carey
emulation. Their credo is clear: never hesitate to warble seven notes
where one would suffice.

Vocal showboating is to be expected in a high-stakes singing contest
with a repertory that leans toward florid pop ballads. (Among the
"all-time classics" covered by "American Idol" competitors on the CD
are breast-beating staples of lite radio like Journey's "Open Arms"
and Jeffrey Osborne's "On the Wings of Love.") But what is noteworthy
about "American Idol," whose new winner will be crowned on Wednesday,
is the similarity between its young hopefuls and the reigning royalty
of Billboard's pop and rhythm and blues charts. "American Idol"
offers a telling glimpse of the state of American popular singing, an
art which has in the last decade been dominated not just by a single
style - a kind of watered-down gospel-soul - but by a particular
vocal mannerism: melisma.

A melisma is a passage of several notes sung to a single syllable. It
is a nearly universal musical gesture - heard in everything from
Gregorian chant to Indian raga to the Muslim muezzin's trilling call
to prayer - and a fixture of many of the genres that nourished
American pop, in particular the gospel music that Ray Charles, Sam
Cooke, Aretha Franklin and others carried out of the black church and
recast as secular soul and R & B.